It is time for an Academy Award category that acknowledges the work of stunt professionals. They have been a crucial feature of cinema, instilling shock and awe into audiences since the early 1900s, and they deserve to finally get recognition at Academy level. Though there are the Taurus Awards, and other smaller scale stunt industry awards, stunt professionals deserve to be placed alongside other Academy Award categories that acknowledge technical excellence in film. Stunt performing is just as essential as costume design or cinematography.
Just as costume or set design help establish the setting of a film, stunt work does the same for action films. Cinema is all about the suspension of disbelief, and if you don’t believe Indiana Jones is leaping from a galloping horse on to a German tank or that James Bond is bungee-jumping off the dam that conceals a Soviet chemical weapons facility, then that entire part of the film is ruined for you. Stunt professionals make the incredible credible. They are not actors, but they have to be believable, and they have to ensure that the stunt a) looks good on screen, and b) doesn’t get them killed. That takes real skill and dedication to an art, so why aren’t they considered to be of the same ilk as master cinematographers or expert editors?
Snobbery is an accusation long levelled at the Academy, whether that be against certain films, certain directors, or even certain skin colours. Perhaps there has been a certain snobbery aimed at stunt professionals? It could be argued that stunt professionals are expendable, as they are intended to be indistinguishable and interchangeable on screen, and fulfill basic roles that require little or no artistic skill.
In fact, stunt professionals have to be skilled at their chosen profession. There is a wide-ranging skill-set that stunt performers must master in order to be registered as professionals. Everything from driving high-speed cars and riding horses to scuba diving and death defying leaps – stunt professionals are multi-talented and face possible injury and death on a daily basis. However, given the diverse range of skills that stunt professionals demonstrate on-screen, it could be argued that the reason that the Academy has yet to recognise the work done by them is because it is very difficult to compare between different stunts. How do you determine which is better? A high fall from a flaming building and hitting an air bag safely verses doing a j-turn successfully in a car going at 80 mph? There is little in common between the two, other than being impressive, but it would be hard to determine which is more worthy of an award. It would be ridiculous to have dozens of categories honouring each kind of stunt, and it would also be ridiculous to have a single category essentially discriminating that one type of stunt is better than another. Yet this does not mean that stunts and stunt professionals should have no place to be acknowledged for their work by the Academy.
Stunts and stunt professionals have been around a lot longer than many assume. According to Ilian Simeonow’s book The History of the Stuntman the first recorded use of a stunt professional was in the 1908 version of The Count of Monte Cristo, where an acrobat was paid $5 to jump off a cliff, into the sea, whilst upside down. For over 100 years audiences have gasped, jumped, oohed and aahed at men and women doing amazing things on screen. And they don’t just fall off things: they set themselves on fire, get hit by speeding cars, punched in the face, mauled by wildlife, shot, stabbed, and blown up, all in the name of entertainment. Films aim to make us believe that everything we see on screen is real, and that is the most essential part of the stunt professional’s job.
If we consider the importance of stunts and stunt professionals from a plot point of view, rather than just as spectacle, it’s clear that stunt professionals serve to progress the script. A bad script can feature good stunts, but bad stunts can ruin a good script. Consider the finale of Die Hard… [SPOILERS TO FOLLOW]
The plunge from the 30th floor of the Nakatomi Plaza that was the demise of Hans Gruber was actually performed by a stunt professional, who did a high fall off the building, on to an air bag. It’s clear from the film that it’s not a dummy or a model, nor is it green-screened. It’s a man, willingly throwing himself from the 30th floor of a sky scraper, arms flailing, all for the good of the script. If it had been a dummy or a back-projected image, the climax of the story would have been totally undermined, and the audience would have been monumentally disappointed. Die Hard is a great film because it features great stunts combined with a great script.
For all the car flips, fights, defenestrations, high falls, and full body burns, stunt professionals have played an essential role in cinema, putting audiences on the edge of their seats for over a century. To not have their work acknowledged and recognised by, arguably, the highest authorities in American cinema at the most high-profile event in the film industry calendar is an insult to everything they do.
Stunt professionals do not do what they do for the recognition, they do it for the thrill of cinema. They are skilled experts at their craft, honing their abilities over years through sheer determination and graft. They deserve to be celebrated alongside the stars who get plaudit after plaudit for their on-screen work, as ultimately, the stunt professionals are the people that make them look good on screen, stop them getting hurt, and make their work even more believable.